Categories. Groups. Cliques.
People love to classify things. Walk into any store, search any website. From the sections of the supermarket to the tags on this blog, there is a common feature of clustering based on commonalities.
But this desire to categorize extends beyond things. People love to classify people. We classify ourselves, our peers, even people we have never met.
Take your friends, for instance. You have your friends you call when something big happens, your “first responders” if you will. You have your “casual friends” who you might meet up with every few weeks or so for coffee. Then you have your friends who you can go months without talking to and yet the friendship never deteriorates. But we have all experienced the agony of that intermediate friendship that we don’t know how to categorize. You ask yourself analytical questions to determine whether or not this is the type of friendship where you can invite them to the movies the day of without scaring them off.
So why do we like to categorize? It seems to make our lives easier. When we place situations or people or foods or anything else for that matter into a box, then we can treat all of those things in that box the same way. We learn how to respond to one object in that box, and we then know how to respond to all of the objects grouped in that box. We can learn what we like and don’t like, what is important to us and what might be “dangerous” without the hassle of fully and singly experiencing everything out there. As detailed more in NPR’s Invisibilia episode“The Power of Categories,” categorizing the world around us begins at a young age and provides us with comfort without requiring a change in ourselves.
I’ll offer another more personal example of how people use categories to cope. My grandmother was born and raised in Thailand to a Chinese family that had recently migrated there. She grew up in a neighborhood almost completely populated by Chinese migrants, and daily saw the juxtaposition of Chinese culture with Thai culture. My grandmother quickly learned how to categorize in an effort to have ideal interactions with many different people; Chinese people do this while Thai people do that. I have no doubt that it was beneficial to do this in order to be broadly respectful, but at the same time I always wondered if Person A might just do this because they were Person A.
Using statistical terminology, it seems like our world can become ruled by discrete variables that we assign to anything and everything, but aren’t continuous variables more realistic? Politically, people rarely identify 100% with one presidential candidate, or are 100% Democrat or Republican. Morally, we are not 100% good or bad. Racially, few of us are 100% of one race. Even medically, we have turned to more personalized treatment based on individual needs. More recently, our society has seen a pushback against established discrete social variables concerning gender and sexuality. There is a cry out to recognize the continuous variables of identity that people truly are, instead of continue on with the discrete variables that society has so lazily established. As illustrated in the image below of a political spectrum, the assignment of broad discrete categories ignores the intricacies of the data.
It’s an overwhelming reality that we must venture out of our comfortable categories and observe every new thing on its own and of its own, but it’s a reality nonetheless. Who’s to say what the best approach is, whether it is completely changing the current system or simply adding more categories until they are nearly indistinguishable. But perhaps the first step is adding new words to our vocabulary.
Spectrum. Blend. Continuous.